Why Medical Reporting from Verified Sources can be Just as Problematic for Patients.

Teaching Point(s): The Negativity Bias, Audience Consideration, Outcome Optimisation.

One of the most concerning areas in healthcare information online is that of the medical reporting. With almost daily regularity I read an article that is written with apparently no true understanding or sensitivity of the health topic in question and apparently zero care for the readers psychological well being. I also ask myself what was the purpose of the article?

The media is one of the worst medical communicators on the internet. Today I read an article in the The Independent Online Newspaper an article titled “Here’s how to beat anxiety without medication, according to a new scientific study” by Olivia RemesOn the face of it this article would help alleviate the worry of any anxiety sufferer by offering a medication free solution to treat anxiety. The author is a PHD student at Cambridge so an expert in her field, bright and clearly brilliant and passionate but the article is not written with consideration of the psychology of the reader. 

Medical Reporting
The Article Header from The Independent

To explain I want to deconstruct the content. Let us first consider who is most likely to read the article? Who does it hold most relevance? Who is likely to click through to read more? There is no prizes for guessing those that suffer with anxiety or their loved ones. So an anxious patient is the primary consumer of this article.

The subheading is an ideal declaration for the anxious. “If it’s left untreated, anxiety can lead to depression, early death and suicide, yet the medication that is prescribed to treat anxiety doesn’t often work in the long-term.” I bet the target audience feels better already. So far the article has just triggered anxiety and also misrepresented a clinical paper for good measure.

Now would have been a perfect opportunity to point out that 16% of the world suffer with an anxiety disorder yearly – 0.0001% of the world commit suicide. Of this number many are related to alcohol and drug misuse diluting the number associated with anxiety even further1. I am not belittling the problem I am just interested in fair and balanced medical reporting. Suicide in people with mental health problems exists – it is just not the headline. The headline is that anxiety is extremely treatable and if you feel that you suffer with anxiety that effects your life, then you should seek medical help or return for further medical help.

Here is a quick summary of the first four paragraphs of the article.

Mentions of Help for Anxiety: 1.

Mentions of Suicide, Death or Depression: 6.

Mentions of other Issues: Too many to mention so I will copy and paste the worse offending paragraphs.

“Anxiety can present as fear, restlessness, an inability to focus at work or school, finding it hard to fall or stay asleep at night, or getting easily irritated. In social situations, it can make it hard to talk to others; you might feel like you’re constantly being judged, or have symptoms such as stuttering, sweating, blushing or an upset stomach. It can appear out of the blue as a panic attack, when sudden spikes of anxiety make you feel like you’re about to have a heart attack, go mad or lose control. Or it can be present all the time, as in generalised anxiety disorder, when pervasive worry consumes you and you look to the future with dread.”

Hang on a minute, isn’t this article meant to offer a solution?

It feels very much like these components are leveraged to give greater significance to the article. A benefit to the message senders not the message receivers – a trait in a lot of medical reporting that needs to be addressed.

The article does improve from a productivity point of view, offering some new methods to alleviate a sufferers anxiety a desirable outcome from this piece. The message behind the ‘do it badly’ technique is just too weak and comes far too late in the article to help the article to achieve it’s desired outcome.

How could this article have been better communicated?

Improving Medical Reporting.

A Solid Outcome Goal.

I understand this may come across as an aggressive critique of the article, but look at it subjectively and ask yourself “If I had anxiety would this make me feel better or worse?”. I am sure the purpose of the article was to help but it has failed on this level. The article was not ‘outcome optimised’ to ensure it achieved what it intended to achieve. The positive messages should have been up first and greater consideration given to the psychology of the reader.

The Negativity Bias.

The article is also another example of content that fails to appreciate the psychological factors involved in medical communication online. One factor I wish to labour in this piece is the Negativity Bias. In order to deliver balanced healthcare information to the patient you must spend additional time labouring the positive points because of the Negativity Bias. The Negativity Bias describes the cognitive bias where by things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions) have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and than neutral or positive things, even when of equal intensity. It seems counter intuitive, but to create a fair and balanced article in healthcare, you need to elaborate on the positive messages just to achieve parity.

In this article I would take things one step further. Did we need to hammer home the problems with anxiety? When we write about Cancer therapy, do we labour the fact that Cancer can kill you and damage your quality of life for four whole paragraphs? No, because it would seem unnecessary and cruel for those readers with a Cancer diagnosis.

When you write for a patient audience you need to do it with the psychological well being of the reader at the forefront of your mind. If you wish to learn more about successful medical information or creating content to influence and persuade – then please drop us an email 🙂

  1. World Health Organisation Statistics